Going To The Sun
Long overdue, this is the post about Glacier National Park which is, I have to grudgingly admit a better place than Olympic National Park in quite a few ways. There are some common themes/undertones to this post that I will list out below:
- The mountains
- The waters
- The U’s
- The roads and the drives
Also, useful information is summarized below:
- It is 500 miles from Seattle to East Glacier, about a 12 hour drive with breaks (and a crap car)
- East Glacier has better access to the park. West Glacier has better facilities
- Skip Two Medicine, Many Glacier is a must see
- Hike. Hike. Hike.
- Sunrises FTW/
Photo Credits go to several people, TK, Suma, Madhav, Urja, Muru etc.
Glacier is about 500 odd miles away and easily-easily drivable. The drive is due east of here, I-90 and then a bunch of Montana Highways. The going to GNP was at night so not much of the scenery was visible. I will say though that the Montana state roads have speed limits of eighty and well, lets be honest, there is nothing there so in a competent car it would be challenging to keep to 80. Stay alert though, deer frolic about for no good reason and I do think that hitting a deer is not the most intelligent thing in the world.
The place we stayed at was a vacation rental from vrbo.com. The lady in charge had a gazillion questions to ask but did provide us with a very luxurious house in the middle of Whitefish (which has a lake which I did not see). Courtesy pictures below:
the view of the lake from the house
Glacier National Park
The park itself is a rectangle. There are several entrances but the two prominent ones are the ones on the East (at Apgar) also known as East Glacier and the one on the West (at St. Mary’s) also known as West Glacier. The Going-To-The-Sun-Road (GTSR) connects these two and there is a whole section on this very nice road. US-2 runs East-West across the southern boundary of the park and I believe US-91 and US-89 run North-South parallel to the edges of the park passing through East and West Glacier respectively. We stayed near the entrance at East Glacier. I would recommend staying at West Glacier because it provides more convenient access to the park.
Going To The Sun
Leaving Whitefish, the drive towards Glacier is fairly pleasant after escaping the towns and the cities and other such things. There is a portion that has magnificent views, a mountain to the left, a windy road in front, a river to your right and a railroad on a hillside beyond. The railroad I am told goes from Seattle to GNP and is very scenic. It certainly looks so. The first stop on GTSR is the Apgar Visitor Center (where the gelato stand is rather nice). It is right next to the first big lake, Lake McDonald and should provide ample opportunities for you to sing OldMcDonaldHadAFarmEEYaEEYaOOOOO. Do not seek solitude on the Apgar side of this lake, it’s a bustling center of activity. There’s a motel, a Kayak rental place and many infants and children and bigger specimens of the human population milling around.
Lake McDonald at Apgar
To find Solitude, drive on GTSR and head east. GTSR goes along the lake to the very end of the lake and there are many spots to just pull out. Choose a spot where you don’t see any people and walk down to the lake. It is a nice lake and I’d give this four out of five stars (I am rather spoilt for lakes because I can afford to give this a 4 out of 5 stars). It is worthwhile to just focus first on the waves and then at a point on the horizon and then back again on the waves.
And crystal clear water
As a quick warm up, there’s a short four mile hike to nearby Avalanche Lake. As far as hikes go, it is very dissimilar to the hikes in the Pacific Northwest. The hike follows Avalanche creek which as you go further becomes a roaring collection of little eddies, rapids and waterfalls. The flowers here are different too.
Water in motion
The other thing which must be mentioned is the difference in the landscape. I am not a botanist but I notice that the trees are not the same. And then there are the mountains. These are big, proper mountains, very dissimilar to the mountains in Washington. The only time I’ve ever felt awed, mildly so, was at Navaho Pass, where the continuity of the Stuart range took my breath away. At Glacier, the mountains are bigger, imposing. They feel like the mountains atop Moria. They feel solemn. Majestic. The hike itself continues on, climbing a little, falling a little; nothing too strenuous. There is a lot of vegetation and some bugs as you get closer to the lake, just mosey on through that patch. The lake itself has a greenish tinge. It does not feel quiet by the lake; there are far too many people to enjoy solitude in the evening. It is still a sight to behold, set amidst mountains that are peppered with countless glacier-melt waterfalls.
GTSR continues. It follows a stream for a few miles. There are beautiful sights to the right (if heading east). There are also mountains behind and stopping at the pull-outs or scenic views is recommended. The road soon leaves the stream and starts winding its way up a mountain-side, heading towards Logan’s pass, across the Rockies. This portion of the road is beautiful to drive. It is twisty and bendy and incredibly smooth. However, during the day, GNP is overcrowded. Stuffed. Packed. There will be no scope to enjoy just the drive so accept it and look at the views. Also, do get a car that drives well, driving a hundred-ton-SUV-with-an-insipid-automatic-transmission will only serve to exacerbate your irritation. The only remedy, stop often, enjoy the views.
Glomp. If that doesn’t do it for you then look at the next one
All right, I lied, the picture above is better, but there is something about this …
How about this for a view eh? That is the portion of GTSR going along the stream.
Like I said, take a nice car …
GTSR climbs on relentlessly until it reaches Logan’s Pass. This is very obvious, there is a big sign that says, “Logan’s Pass” and a turn after which there is no more elevation gain. At Logan’s Pass is a visitor center, a crowded parking lot, a snowfield and more mountains. Lots more mountains. There are hikes here and in July, on the 4th, give or take, there were wildflowers blooming. There are quite a few people here who do add a little bit to the entertainment, especially the underprepared ones who walk on the snow in sneakers. The proper way to travel on snow is on top of your behind, sliding. For the nitpickers, the use-the-right-word-instead-of-a-whole-sentence-so-that-you-can-get-to-the-point-quicker, the word is glissade. Also, binoculars or a mighty zoom lens (which if you are a guy makes me suspect you are overcompensating) is a good idea. There are those weird goat-like-mountainous-creatures, no wait, I mean, mountain-like-goat-creatures, well, the things in the picture below.
Wildflowers. If you are a teenage girl, this is a great place to get a profile picture to make your girlfriends jealous.
At this point, I will yammer on for a little while on the topic of those goatlike-creatures-for-whom-I-am-too-lazy-to-look-up-the-appropriate-name. I had the misfortune/luxury of meeting them up close. From the confines of a car in a parking lot. From the confines of a car with the engine running in a parking lot. From the confines of a car with the engine running and someone not at all afraid of running over these unnamed-horny-beasts behind the wheel in a parking lot. Anyway, after that bit of butchering of the language, I will get back to the point and don’t you dare, not for a moment think that the entire purpose of this paragraph was to butcher the language and just ramble. On. There is a point and I am getting to it. Slowly. These, I will use the word, things, to get to the point quicker, are rather disgusting. There was a flock of them in the parking lot at Logan’s Pass one fine morning. My friend was enamoured clicking away. It is interesting to observe them for a minute or ten but not much longer. They do not seem interested in humans, they seemed fairly content with licking the tarmac for any food. They are yucky as well, peeing everywhere and preferring to expose their behinds to humans with cameras. The class hierarchy in this species is also very hard to gauge. They are sprightly though and look built to gander up the mountain slopes like Chintu.
St. Mary’s Lake
Heading further east on GTSR the road starts going downhill. It’s a nice drive plagued by traffic during the day. There are far too many motorized means of locomotion to make the drive enjoyable. There are also these ancient red people carriers, made if I recall correctly by Ford. They are used as taxis, free transport from one end of the park to another. It’s a sensible idea and I would recommend doing this if it is possible to plan around it. The car does offer a lot of freedom though, so it’s a tradeoff like with most things in life. These, apparently are very expensive to maintain.
People Carriers used since a long time ago
The next big attraction on GTSR after a little while is St. Mary’s Lake at the eastern edge of the park. It is a long lake, stretching east to west. It is flanked by mountains. It’s also a nice azure (forgive the nomenclature here) and a good place to stop and get your tripod out and take a photograph.
At the east entrance to St. Mary’s is a lodge where there is a gift-shop, a concierge that is kind enough to send out stamped mail for you – you can send postcards from here – and a restaurant that has rather nice food. The beef stroganoff was not up to the mark (based on feedback from a friend, I don’t eat beef) but the rest of the food was some of the best we had on the trip. The bread was fresh and very soft and it is sad that there are no pictures of the food.
South of St. Mary’s is another entrance to GNP. Getting there involves a short drive on US-89 and US-89 is marvelous. The scenery is one of huge mountains with U-shaped valleys on the right (if you are heading south) and rolling hills, pastures, meadows on the left. The occasional bovine (yes, I used it as a noun) will cross your path. There are signs which proclaim that the shop or restaurant in question has the best blueberry or hickenberry or some-other-berry pancakes. The road twists and turns and is beautifully graded. The name of the area in question is “Two Medicine” and having not paid much attention to the ranger lady I do not know why it is called so. This is a valley, tucked away with a lake. It is quiet, peaceful and serene. This area is also not very popular, there was just one more group there when we arrived. It is nice but in my opinion, not a must do.
u-shaped valleys, the view from US-89 S
US-2 runs east-west along the southern edge of the park. It is parallel to GTSR and a much quicker drive back. There are portions of US-2 that are also very enjoyable to drive. Especially in a thunderstorm. There is, once again, a river, mountains and a twisty road. A little bit of music, some half-decent company and most of the drive will be spent with a smile.
On the topic of sunsets I have a little bit to say. I’ve seen some very nice ones before. There was one somewhere in Arizona/Nevada, the in December, I called these lilac-fire, violet-burn, as we were driving West towards the Los Angeles (a city that I think has far too much sprawl). There were many in Oregon that we simply mind-boggling, where the Sun’s rays reflected on top of the clouds, setting them alight in Gold. There was one in Olympic which I remember more for the conversation. Chasing the Sun at Glacier National Park is a lot of fun. The trick is to start off at the East entrance to the park. The Sun will set over the west so when you are at St. Mary’s you see it play with the mountain tops. They were a very brilliant orange.
Sunset at St. Mary’s
Twilight West of Logan’s Pass, the Sun setting behind the mountains
Many Glacier and Iceberg Lake
Many Glacier is another entrance to GNP, situated North of St. Mary’s. There is not much to write about the drive from St. Mary’s to Many Glacier, think of Many Glacier as the starting point for spectacular scenery. There’s a hotel and a lodge there where there is food (pizza, reasonably nice pizza). There’s also multiple lakes and the opportunity to Kayak and you can hop from lake to lake in your kayak! Iceberg lake is a very delightful trail, it is like a five mile walk in the park. The elevation gain is minimal, the trail climbs a little at the start but levels out and is mostly flat, walking along a ridge. It is not a disappointing walk, there is much beauty to behold. The first perhaps mile or so is through forest and the next couple of miles are along a ridge on a side of a U-shaped valley. The mountain side had wildflowers, not a large number of them but a significant few and it is interesting to see the variety of the different wildflowers and that particular picture happens to have been misplaced. Halfway through the trek is a bridge over a river, a nice place to take a break along with the rest of the crowd. There is wildlife nearby, squirrels and such, and feeding them is perhaps not the most intelligent thing to do. Further on, as you climb higher and head up the U-shaped valley, to the very heart of the Glacier, the foliage starts to thin, just a little bit. There are chilly streams and ice-cold waterfalls of snowmelt gurgling and ready to provide refreshment. The first major water body is an un-name-able-blue. It’s not Iceberg Lake though, Iceberg Lake lies a few hundred meters farther on. It comes into view suddenly and is surprising – a mess of broken icebergs, a harmonious disarray.
Random beautiful shot
U-Shaped valleys, Iceberg Lake lies at the foot of those mountains
Looking back, if nothing else, I have a very clear understanding of what a valley carved by a Glacier looks like
The Bridge and the stream halfway through the hike
The sun and the clouds, reflected in the lake
St. Marys is a very nice spot to see the sunrise at GNP. And seeing a sunrise at GNP is worth the effort of waking up in the morning. GTSR is empty so you can enjoy the drive. There is a silence. Quiet. There is a chilly breeze so make sure to pack a cap. And after watching the sun rise, stop by downtown Whitefish for breakfast!
I do not need to caption this.
To say that I thoroughly enjoyed GNP is an understatement. There is pristine beauty there, especially when you are away from all the crowds in the parking lots and near the visitor centers.